Trans, Planted: Brooklyn Shaffer and AJay Strong look back at a life in transition and toward an uncertain future

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Holiday spook from the creative team behind “Ditzyland,” featuring Ricky Graham, Varla Jean Merman, Jefferson Turner, Sean Patterson, Brooklyn Shaffer and Michael P. Sullivan
Dec. 2-18
Rivertown Theaters of the Performing Arts, 325 Minor St., Kenner
Rivertown Theaters website

WHAT: This week’s show will focus on transgender issues, with guests Brooklyn Shaffer (“Steel Poinsettias”), AJay Strong (Bella Blue Entertainment), Wesley Ware (BreakOUT!), and journalist Katy Reckdahl
WHEN: Sat. (Dec. 3), 3 p.m.-4 p.m.
WHERE: WHIV (102.3 FM);

Sitting in between Brooklyn Shaffer and AJay Strong in the back of the CC’s Coffee House in the French Quarter this week was watching, and listening to, one of most bizarre and fascinating mirror images one might imagine. There sat AJay Strong, the co-producer of Bella Blue Entertainment who, after transitioning from a femaile during relocation to New Orleans a couple years ago, discussing how his transgender journey has finally helped him feel comfortable in his own skin.

Across the back table from him sat his friend, Brooklyn Shaffer, the actor who, just a few years ago as Brian Peterson, was one of New Orleans funniest and campiest performers — often in drag. And, after having transitioned to female at almost exactly the same time, Shaffer could only nod her head in agreement with Strong and expressed her own improving sense of self. She feels so comfortable, in fact, that Shaffer returns to the stage with her current co-conspirators that include Ricky Graham, Varla Jean Merman and Sean Patterson in the holiday spoof “Steel Poinsettias.” It’s got the same kind of campy fire that Shaffer used to produce in Running With Scissors’ annual “Grenadine McGunkle’s Double-Wide Christmas” as well as the Graham-Merman concoction, “Ditzyland.”

When one was speaking, really, the other would nod their head. For even though these are two people who have transitioned from exact opposite gender to the other — conjuring the image of two genders crossing in the night — they both appear to have landed in the same type of contentment one gets when they better recognize themselves in the mirror.

Continue reading

Hundreds gather to support trans and gender non-conforming youth of color at Congo Square (photos and video)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Backed by the support of the community advocacy group BreakOUT!, a crowd of about 200 people rallied at “Transgender Day of Remembrance/Resilience/Resistance” to show solidarity for trans and gender non-conforming youth of color on Sunday (Nov. 20) at Congo Square inside Louis Armstrong Park. Advocates delivered speeches, provided informational brochures, staged healing demonstrations, handed out inspirational signs, led a small march into the French Quarter as a side project, handed out symbolic roses, and even staged a “mannequin challenge” as part of the event.

(Check out a Facebook Live scene from the event below.)

The symbolism of the roses was multi-faceted, especially in light of the murder of 25 trans people of color in 2016. Working on the theme, “Our Roses, While We Are Alive,” advocates handed out roses to encourage participants to become allies in the fight for “quality education, affirming and accessible healthcare, safe and stable housing, and sustainable employment,” as the event announcement read.

“In New Orleans, Louisiana and all across the country, trans and gender non-conforming youth of color continue to disproportionately represent youth affected by homelessness, unemployment, and the criminal justice system,” organizers said on their Facebook page. “While New Orleans and other parts of the country face an affordability crisis for housing across the city and neighborhoods continue to become gentrified and stripped of their culture, trans and gender non-conforming youth of color continue to struggle to find spaces to call our own.

[Learn more: Read about the event as covered by the New Orleans Advocate]

“We recognize that safety means accessing the spaces we need to survive, free from criminalization, incarceration, transphobia, homophobia, racism, heteropatriarchy, and the many layers of oppression we face in the world,” the statement continued. “In these conditions, it is a political act to take space and be seen. It is a political act to say:
We deserve jobs!
We deserve housing!
We deserve education!
We deserve to self-determine our gender!
We deserve to uplift our “trancestors”!
We deserve space to come together and to heal from centuries of trauma.
We deserve space to create, to laugh, to be!
That is why this year, on the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), Trans and Gender Non-Conforming (TGNC) youth of color in New Orleans are calling on those aligned with our values all across the country to demand the space that we deserve.”

A sub-group of about 20 advocates and allies broke off from the event to march into the French Quarter and set up at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann streets to demand a safe space.

BreakOUT! builds the power of LGBTQ youth most impacted by the criminal justice system to affect concrete policy change to fight the criminalization of LGBTQ youth in New Orleans.

[Learn more: Check out this profile of BreakOUT! in the New Orleans Advocate]

Come back later as more videos are added to the story.

Ellen DeGeneres among recent Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees

15123032_10154778555078281_3903710774946231520_oEllen DeGeneres, the greater New Orleans native who evolved from a stand-up comic to TV sitcom star but also a pioneer for LGBTQ rights, was among the many honorees for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it was announced Wednesday (Nov. 16).

“In her work and in her life, she has been a passionate advocate for equality and fairness,”  the White House said.

Other honorees include Academy Award winners Tom Hanks, Robert Redford and Robert De Niro, musician Bruce Springsteen, NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and “Saturday Night Life” creator Lorne Michaels.

DeGeneres was one of the most popular stand-up comics of the 1990s when she landed her own sitcom, “Ellen,” in 1994. She caused a major stir when in 1997 she came out as a lesbian, and as she incorporated this into her storyline, ratings for the show dwindled and “Ellen” was canceled in 1998. A subsequent sitcom also failed, but DeGeneres regained her footing with her wildly popular daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which has been on air since 2003. She has been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights throughout the course of her career, and in 2008 married her partner, actress Portia de Rossi, in 2008. DeGeneres also has hosted the Emmy and Academy Awards ceremonies. Her brother, Vance, also is active in the entertainment business.

DeGeneres also offered words of support for the nation in the aftermath of the recent presidential election.

People have been very passionate about this race. And I think it’s because we all love our country, we just have different ideas about what’s best for it, which is part of what makes America great. And I believe we can all come together because if you take away the labels, you realize we’re far more alike than we are different.”

Though she is often referred to a New Orleans native, she technically was born in Metairie. She initially attended Grace King High School before moving away to Texas, where she graduated from high school, and returned to New Orleans and spent a semester at the University of New Orleans before working a range of jobs in the area and getting into the local comedy club scene in the early 1980s. While her show has limited her film work, she is perhaps best known for her voice work in “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.”

The rest of the Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees: actresses Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross, retired Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, polymath physicist Richard Garwin, Bill Gates and wife Melinda Gates, architect Frank Gehry, mathematician and computer scientist Margaret H. Hamilton, artist Maya Lin, attorney Newt Minow and President of Miami Dade College Eduardo Padrón. There will be two posthumous honorees: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, known as “Amazing Grace” and “the first lady of software,” and Blackfeet Tribal community leader Elouise Cobell.

As Bianca Del Rio’s “Not Today Satan” tour blows into town, don’t forget the awesomeness that is “Hurricane Bianca”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

WHAT: Bianca Del Rio, Not Today Satan Tour
WHEN: Fri. (Nov. 4), 8 p.m.
WHERE: Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts
TICKETS: $37.50-$75
MORE INFO: Visit Ticketmaster

When Roy Haylock’s alter-ego Bianca Del Rio stormed through season six of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” she did so leaving a trail of withering one-liners behind her — not the least of which was the cautionary missive, “Not today, Satan!” It worked on so many levels as Haylock captured the title and has gone on to increasing fame and recognition.

So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Haylock’s “Queen of Mean” persona blows into town on a career high with her Not Today Satan Tour that his the Mahalia Jackson Theater on Friday (Nov. 4). The tour has cut across Europe, Australia and the United States over the course of 2016, with a Nov. 9 finale set for San Antonio.

[Learn more: Read about Bianca Del Rio’s TV deal with Logo]

It’s one of the few times Texas might be better place than Haylock’s hometown of New Orleans to end the tour; his theatrical film debut, “Hurricane Bianca,” which blew onto Amazon Prime in September, is set in Texas. And, as outsized as its locale, it’s surprisingly hilarious and affecting, and shouldn’t live under the admittedly out-sized shadow of Haylock’s cutting live performances.

Written and directed by Matt Kugelman, “Hurricane Bianca” tells the story of Richard Martinez (Haylock), a likeable but harried New York City high school science teacher looking for a better teaching situation and thinks he’s found it thanks to a program that lands him in a small Texas town. His homosexuality quickly exposed, Richard is fired, only to come back with a vengeance in the form of (you guessed it), Bianca Del Rio, who takes the school by storm, improves her students’ classroom performance, inspires a bullied gay student, reunites the football coach with an alienated sibling, and wins the Teacher of the Year award in the process. (To say these are spoiler alerts would be an insult to Kugelman’s script, which telegraphs every possible happy ending in the sweetest possible way.)

[Buzzfeed: How the success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a double-edged sword]

It’s a fairly conventional inspirational education story that basically puts a drag-queen, lightly satirical spin on such familiar works as “To Sir, With Love,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Summer School” and “Up the Down Staircase.” But it should come as no coincidence that Kugelman and Haylock have chosen the trope as the setting for Bianca’s first movie comedy vehicle. After all, the teachers in these movies are all outsiders, fish out of water who learn to earn the trust of their students — many of whom are alienated themselves. The students of this particular high school are generally popular and snarky, but they’re uninspired academic under-achievers, and Bianca fights fire with a fire that Richard couldn’t muster in the few days he had in the classroom.

Where Richard easily let them roll over him, Bianca fires away the kind of digs that only a drag queen could summon:

“I know what we’re going to call you: White trash that won’t burn!”
“You’re the prettiest girl on the planet … of the apes!”
“Shut up! Your parents are siblings!”

Got a problem with the way she’s running things? “I’m fucking this cat. You just hold the legs!”

There’s definitely a tradeoff in Haylock’s departure from the stage to the screen. Bianca’s rapid-fire, caustic, voluble delivery needs a live setting, if for no other reason the way her insults tear from the speakers and bounce off the wall, and an audience that practically begs to be a target. So there’s an energy gap in her “Hurricane Bianca” performance that Kugelman has difficulty in filling. But what’s lost in energy, Haylock fills in with intimacy and charm, and this comes in unlikely moments. It gets particularly, surprisingly sweet when Bianca initially tries to fend off the football coach, Chuck (Denton Blane Everett), but then befriends him when he learns that he has been estranged from his gay brother — now a transgendered radio host, Karma Johnstone (Bianca Leigh).

“Hurricane Bianca” also provides a steady stream of familiar and often iconic faces in cameos roles once you get past the hilarious casting of Rachel Dratch as the lip-gloss-addicted assistant principal, Deborah Ward. From there we have fun appearances by stars such as Alan Cumming as a school administrator, RuPaul (sans drag) as a meteorologist and Margaret Cho as a wig-shop owner, and supporting appearances by gay, transgender and drag queen performers: Markus Kelle and a bunch of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alumni including William Belli, Alyssa Edwards, Joslyn Fox and Shangela Laquifa Wadley. (There is even an appearance by New Orleans theater veteran Brooklyn Shaffer!)

But the most affecting performance comes from Bianca Leigh, arguably the hardest-working transgender actor (“Transamerica”) before Laverne Cox burst onto the scene in “Orange Is the New Black.” As Coach Chuck’s long-lost brother who’d left the family to transition to female, Karma is a believable character at a time when transgender issues have jumped to the foreground of discussion in American culture.

Kugelman deftly dances in and out of and around such issues, starting with Richard’s being legally fired for simply being gay — one of the many charms of Texas’ homophobic laws. More than a fun gay-movie indie romp, “Hurricane Bianca” comes off more as a cheeky but endearing parable about acceptance and tolerance. And as New Orleans will learn yet again on Friday night, if you mess with Roy Haylock, well, you had it coming.